When you think of a hawker you tend to envision an old, weather-beaten uncle: a man who’s been plying the trade for decades, dressed in a well-worn singlet with a Good Morning towel draped around his neck, hands bearing the scars of burns and cuts amassed over the years, and a face that’s more likely to wear a perpetual scowl than not. Little wonder, then, that many who come by Plum & Rice’s stall in Bedok are surprised to see three young men manning the kitchen, dishing out hearty, simple fare in their practical, all-black t-shirt and shorts ensembles with friendly smiles.
Part of a small but steadily growing group of young hawkerpreneurs, as they’ve been christened, Eric, Raphael, and Gladwin opened Plum & Rice in November last year. Inspired by the Japanese habit of eating umeboshi, or pickled plums, with rice as part of breakfast, Plum & Rice serves a localised version: sour plums mixed into steamed rice or porridge and paired with dishes that you might recognise from your very own dining table back home—think tender, braised pork belly; steamed fish topped with a variety of sauces; and long-brewed soups. Things seem to be going well for them: fresh off the back of a good review in a national newspaper, they’ve been having snaking queues, sometimes selling out of their dishes well before the stall is slated to close at 2PM.
But though they’ve barely just started out, they’ve come to learn that running your own business is never as easy as it looks, and have faced what seems like more than their fair share of skepticism and criticism. But, like their food, it’s the simple things, as well as each other, that keep this trio going.
Shentonista (S): How did you guys start doing what you’re doing now? Was this always something you guys always wanted to do?
Gladwin (G): In a sense, not really, because we started in culinary school—we all went to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA)—so we didn’t actually plan on starting our own business. However, after we went through the overseas internship we felt that Singapore, today, lacks young people to carry on traditions. When you think of the many hawker centres in Singapore, you think of memories of your family and simple food. We were thinking about what memories we’d like to give to our children. Would these memories be centred around restaurants or cafés? It’s not that they’re not good, but we felt that it’s the simple food that makes us truly Singaporean. As long as we keep doing this, we hope that more and more youngsters can see us as capable, in a sense, and join us in this trade.
Eric (E): I agree with what Gladwin said. We grew up in the ‘90s and all these restaurants and cafés were not trendy then. Where would we go for a Sunday brunch? Nowadays, there’s an influx of foreigners who are trying to run restaurants, like a Japanese ramen store run by a Chinese person. It’s a good thing that we’re exchanging our food culture but at the same time, I’d want my kids to grow up eating local food.
Raphael (R): In my family, there’s nobody who’s a real chef or who works in the F&B industry, so my passion was really out of the blue. When I started having an interest in cooking, I signed up for culinary school, but right from the start, I never thought of being a hawker. One of our instructors once asked our class: “Who wants to be a hawker after they graduate?” There were quite a few hands raised, but mine wasn’t. At that point in time, I aspired to be a Michelin-starred chef and I told myself to train really hard and practise; I had to go work for top restaurants in the world. But then, bit by bit, after I did my internship and came back to Singapore, I noticed it’s quite sad because we grew up having a lot of comforting, hawker food but it’s slowly dying out. That’s where I agree with Eric and Gladwin—we don’t want to see that happening, so why not do something about it?
S: Why did you all decide to start something together? What were some things you considered before working together, as friends?
E: I’ve actually known Gladwin for ages, since secondary school. So character-wise, we know each other inside and out. We also got to know Raphael while we were in culinary school, so that’s about two to three years? Some people would say it’s not always good to work with friends because you’ll tend to—for the lack of a better phrase—slack off. I think they wouldn’t mind me slacking off once in a while! (laughs) However, I believe that with a clear goal in mind, everything will just work out. We set ourselves specific job scopes to handle different parts of the business, and when a problem arises, we talk it out and be open about it.
S: In the context of Singapore’s mostly-practical society, why did you decide to become hawkers? Are there still negative stereotypes about being in the hawker trade and what are your parents’ thoughts about this?
R: I agree that a lot of hawkers are not highly educated but I don’t blame the public for having a negative view on them. A lot of people that ask us about our background are surprised that we’re university graduates. I guess the stereotype still exists. We come from a proper culinary school, so people assume that we’d open a café or restaurant, and even my friends ask me why I’m running a hawker stall. In my opinion, I don’t see why what you do should set your image. If you choose to be a hawker, it doesn’t mean you’re poorly educated. The negativity will change over time!
G: A lot of people don’t realise there are a lot of hawkers in Singapore, and a lot of households that depend on the hawker trade for a living. People shouldn’t assume that they’re “above” these hawkers; they’ve put their children through university with their blood and sweat. Their children might work in offices instead of sweating it out here and I respect that, but us being back in this line is not a bad thing. Whatever you do, as long as you’re honest, it’s not a bad job at all.
E: We’re just thankful that our parents are supportive. I don’t blame them if they have negative thoughts; all parents want the best for their children and they know how tough hawker life can get. Initially they asked, “Why not get a proper job in a restaurant, and work hard for two to three years before coming out to start something?” But I believe that since we’re young, fresh, energetic, and without too much financial burden, why not give it a shot? We’ve got nothing to lose. If we make it, then great; if we don’t, at least we tried!
S: What’s the best part of being a hawker/entrepreneur?
G: There were a few times where people came back to tell us that the food is really good and we’d be very happy. Being a hawker is just like being in an open kitchen concept restaurant; you get to see customers happy with your food. Sometimes customers would take a bite of the food and start looking back towards the stall. When we see this, it’s the highest sense of pride we feel.
R: To add on to that, it definitely feels better having more control in our line. Being able to control the recipe itself, the creation of the food, and watching people eat and enjoy it—all these factors help build a sense of satisfaction. I’d say it’s very different compared to when you’re working on someone else’s idea.
E: I worked at a restaurant for a year and a half. The easy part when you work in a restaurant is that everything is laid out for you—the standard operating procedure, recipes, and guidelines. When you’re running your own stall, all these things have to come from you. It’s challenging but like what Raphael said, at the end of the day, when you go home, you think about how someone commented that the food was good today and you’ll get that sense of joy.
S: Can you share a little more about the inspiration behind the business/cuisine? Why do you think people like it?
R: Gladwin and I were travelling around Japan a year ago, and we noticed that the locals have umeboshi (pickled plums) with their rice and porridge every morning. They believe in the health benefits that come with it: umeboshi helps to relieve fatigue and aids in digestion. When we tasted it, it was something very familiar to us as it’s a kind of sour plum but yet the complexity of the flavour, along with the floral aroma, was quite unique. So we thought, “Would it be possible to bring this back with us to create something new?” The Japanese put plum on top of their rice, but we went a step further by incorporating it into the rice itself so the taste is more even. We thought of how we were going to pair it as well, and we wanted it to be more of a lunch than a breakfast thing. We didn’t want to lose touch of our own heritage, so the meat, fish, and soup that we make are inspired by home-cooked food. We consulted each other—because everyone’s home-cooked food is different—and we came up with all the recipes together.
S: Why open in Bedok though?
E: I grew up in the area, Raphael stays in Pasir Ris, Gladwin stays in Tampines. We all know that west side of Singapore has good food but the east side has a lot of good food.
R: (laughs) You’re going to start a war!
E: I mean, the people in Bedok love their food. There are a lot of hawker centres that are always filled with people. When the opportunity came by, I told Eric and Gladwin about it and they came down to recce the place. We all agreed that it was pretty feasible, and there’s a new hub nearby that’s opening next month. Hopefully that’ll bring more of a crowd.
S: We understand that Plum & Rice is only about four months old; what are your hopes and goals for the business?
G: We’re trying to balance the idea of expanding but keeping it small at the same time, as we don’t want to ‘commercialise’ the hawker industry, in a sense. We’d be competing with the livelihood of other hawkers, and I wouldn’t say it’s just a moral issue, but creating a chain of multiple stores would dilute the brand itself. We want to develop a brand that’s personal, not just another chain restaurant where you churn out food like machines. We’re actually hoping to creating different concepts and make food that can sustain the hawker trade even more—food that is already present, that people can relate to.
E: Right now, for the next year or two, we’ll try to build a stronger brand and customer base, and improve the food and keep it consistent.
S: Have you had any interesting encounters at work?
E: It’s typical to see a lot of older folks around here, and some of them are skeptical about younger people running hawker stalls. There was an uncle that was here recently with his son. He was pretty friendly and asked us how we started doing this, and what our background was. When we told him that we’re all university graduates from culinary school, he was surprised. To them, it’s kind of a wasted thing that we’re running a hawker stall when we could be churning out more money somewhere else. That aside, he started to question whether we really could cook, and whether everything was really prepared in-house. Gladwin explained how we go about running the place, and the uncle was like, “Wu yia bo?” (Hokkien for “really, meh?”). He doubted us and at that point of time, I got angry but I kept my cool. There’ll always be people like that.
R: A lady came up to us a while ago and asked in Mandarin, “你妈妈煮 then 你们带来卖的啊?” (“Did your mother cook this? And you brought it here to sell?”) We were all stunned. We got a bit defensive and said, “不是啦，这是我们煮的!” (“No lah, we cooked this!”) and she was like “真的吗！这样厉害啊?” (“Really? So good ah?”) We realise that people have a lot of doubts as to whether us three youngsters can cook. They don’t understand that a lot of restaurants out there are also run by youngsters like us, working in the kitchen. It’s interesting, what they see and what they don’t, and it’s really quite amazing once you start to realise what people are actually thinking.
S: What’s one thing you’ve learnt so far?
G: (laughs) Saving water! We listen to the radio every day and there’re a lot of advertisements by the government that encourage us to save water. The slogans they use are stuck in our heads.
R: I learnt that it pays to be really skinny to work inside a stall! (laughs) Thank God all three of us can fit in the kitchen.
E: I wouldn’t say I took everything for granted when I was in school, but I had a decent life because my dad worked really hard. Both my father and older brother started their own businesses and I’ve realised how tough it is to run your own business. I think back to how my dad has been doing it for over 30 over years now, alone, while I have two other partners. I’m thankful for what my parents have done for me.
Plum & Rice
216 Bedok North Street 1, #01-45
Tuesdays to Sundays, 8AM–2PM